7 August 2012 – Let me tell you a story.

It’s about how little I know.

It was told to me by Frances Bodkin of the Dharawal people from western Sydney.

In summer, the meat ant carries tiny silvery and pale pebbles to cover its nest with.

In winter, the ant replaces the pebbles with dark ones.

And so the ant designs and constructs its habitat to reflect the sun’s summer heat and to hold its cooler winter rays.

I wish I lived in a culture, my Australian one, which matched the wit and observational skills of that meat ant.

If I did my culture would not be wiping out our ant populations, our small birds and insects.

We build roads, don’t we, which create temperatures over 72 degrees where these little folk live, forage and seek to get by. So our roads, too hot for living with down there, are killing them.

The research is clear. We know, for example, that the ants of the Perth plain are gone, mostly due to the heat of black roads, removed and un-replaced tree canopy and dark (fashionable) roofs.  (1)

But, really, who needs research to disclose the obvious; what can live at 72 degrees?

Not much.

And we know that 9000 humans, mainly young and old ones, die now, their premature deaths caused by black roads, dark roofs, removed and un-replaced tree canopy and black roofs. (2)

Yes, that’s a repetitious sentence.  I make no apology for it.

To whom would I apologise in my culture for saying twice that its design and construction industry is killing our young and old and our ground-dwelling, defenceless critters?

Not to the makers of laws, rules, guidelines, checklists and – oh! – “environmental impact statements” and other “stuff” of city-making legislation. They’re causing the deaths.

Not to the road owners and designers and builders – it’s their hand on the trigger, their fingers on the rules.

I say “sorry” to the ant, the bird, the child, the aged.

And I repeat myself above if only to wonder aloud that way if someone, somewhere, either elected or “in charge” of designing and building our roads, subdivisions and human habitat would thereby hear me.  And, having heard, may act today to stop their destruction in ways just as well-proven as is the scientifically measured destruction they’re causing.

To its great credit the council where I live has heard me and my community and acted.

Last week it cancelled roadworks here with black asphalt until the plan to make our community sustainable is made (see articles in The Fifth Estate:

The argument it accepted was put to them like this in an email:

“Residents of Shepherd Street have approached me about a letterbox drop to them on behalf of council about resurfacing the road between Cleveland and Myrtle streets; it’s attached.

They are alarmed at the prospect of black tar being used instead of pale tar and wish me to make it clear that they do not accept that black tar may be used there.

These residents have spent hundreds of hours planting the verge and maintaining it to cool their buildings and to grow edible and decorative trees and plants. If paid at commercial rates for their time and resources, the residents would receive many thousands of dollars.

The before and after photographs are stunning; the vegetation has helped support resale prices of units in the street. I’m using the photos taken by residents in my new book, Sustainable Food, to show how significant improvements in amenity may be achieved by verge gardens.

As the work appears imminent will you please let me know by 5 pm tomorrow if council will:

  • put a hold on any works until the specifications make clear that the resurfacing material is to be pale
  • develop with us a consultation process about this and any roadworks in Chippendale before such works are commissioned.

The facts are clear: black tar causes the urban heat island effect which causes 9000 premature human deaths a year and is wiping out ant, bird and insect populations.

Council has direct evidence of this in the attached thermal image which shows that on 5 February 2009 Shepherd Street was over 33 degrees during the midnight hours of 1 am to 5 am while the private land was less than 29 degrees; thus the roads are driving up airconditioning costs for residents and businesses and negate any investment by buildings owners in insulation, passive design, thermally efficient materials and design.

These facts, and solutions to the problems, are contained in the Sustainable Communities Plan submitted to Council in June 2011. Council staff will be aware of the plan’s solutions but, unfortunately staff have yet to give councillors a copy of the plan.

Other councils are acting to prevent the urban heat island effect; see for example, the ABC’s report here:

If we don’t hear from you by 5 pm tomorrow we will have to consider the direct and indirect actions we must take to have our voice heard here, and we are presently considering what the actions may be. Many of us here feel council staff are unable to empower us or to allow our views to be given the respect they deserve.

Thermal imagery map of Chippendale

The map referred to is reproduced here.

Imagine that.

A council that would seek to match the observational skills of the meat ant. One. Congratulations Sydney City Council; and thank you.

Are there any others?

Not yet Sydney Water, which, like a Marx Brothers movie extra, has charged in here, too, this week ready to dig up our roads yet again using black tar. They come here every year, replacing drain after drain – their failed technology can’t match the meat ants.

I’d be more patient with all of this, laugh even, if it was done with other people’s money and no harm was caused to the innocent. But, if it’s the council it’s my rates, as well as my trust, they take. At least with Sydney Water, being disconnected from their pipes, I pay no fixed or other charges to them. It’s your money, not mine. Their water-getting ways cause even more harm but that’s another story not worth repeating because their business model compels them to destroy habitat, rivers and consume vast amounts of energy. This is so fundamental to them, they cannot hear or act on the facts, or else their business disappears.

But I speak here for the little birds and the ants that so many of our trees and plants depend on for their pollen and seeds to be carried and protected by as part of their reproductive cycle. This fact, too, was taught to me by the Aboriginal elder, Frances Bodkin.  It was she who let me know with her stories, a couple retold here, how little I know.  And it’s she, and her culture, I respect, not mine.

My culture doesn’t know how to build cities.

What’s happening outside your place?

(1)            ‘Arthropods on street trees: a food resource for wildlife’, Simrath Bhullar and Jonathon Majer, Pacific Conservation Biology, Vol 6, pp 171–173

‘The effects of urbanisation on the ant fauna of the Swan Coastal Plain near Perth, Western Australia’, JD Majer and KR Brown, Journal of the Royal Society of Western Australia, Vol 69, Pt 1, 1986, pp 13–17

(2)            Australian Climate Commission Report 2011; Victorian Coroner’s Report into the 2009 Black Friday heatwave

Michael Mobbs’ book, Sustainable House, is the best selling account of how to build a sustainable project, what works and doesn’t. The book shows how Sustainable House has recycled more than 1.5 million litres of sewage in a five square metre garden in Sydney’s inner city Chippendale since 1996, uses rainwater for drinking, solar power for energy and provides accommodation for four people for utility costs of less than $300 a year.

See Michael’s blog – www.sustainablehouse.com.au